Take away the statue of the school’s founder, and Cy McClairen could be the best-known figure on campus at Bethune-Cookman University.
Certainly the longest tenured. In an official capacity, which ends with his Thursday retirement, McClairen has been a campus fixture for all or parts of the past eight decades. Count ’em. Eight.
The school was known as Bethune-Cookman College when McClairen arrived in 1949, fresh out of Panama City’s Rosenwald High School. He’d been turned away by the football coach at Tallahassee’s Florida A&M. The lanky kid — Jack Forsyth “Cy” McClairen Jr. — soon became a star in the only three sports Bethune-Cookman offered: Football, basketball and track and field.
After four years at Bethune-Cookman and two years in the U.S. Army, he spent six seasons with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers before lingering injuries to both knees forced a career move that lasted from age 30 to 85.
“Coach Cy,” as all know him, last roamed a sideline in 1996, but has remained on the athletic department staff ever since. He retires with the title of Senior Associate Athletic Director, but frankly, there’s no title befitting a man who was largely been the face of Wildcats athletics for so many decades — a man who leaves with the wide-spread admiration of all who have ever called him teammate, coach or friend.
“His life is woven into the fabric of this university,” says Lynn Thompson, who has been the school athletics director since 1991. He was heavily urged by McClairen to take the job.
“Our university athletic program couldn’t be what it is today without Cy,” Thompson says. “He deserves all the recognition you could ever put on his shoulders.”
McClairen recently sat down with The News-Journal to recount the memorable moments of his distinguished career.
When McClairen graduated from Panama City’s Rosenwald High in 1949, he wanted to enroll down the road in Tallahassee at Florida A&M, where legendary coach Jake Gaither was developing a strong football program.
“Jake wouldn’t take me. He said, ‘You haven’t had enough experience for me. Let me send you to Allen University in South Carolina and see if they want a football player.’ I said, ‘Hell, you ain’t my daddy, how you gonna send me somewhere else to play football?’ I figured I’ve got to go somewhere else and get a scholarship.
“Bethune-Cookman’s new president was Richard Moore, who’d been my high school principal. My father got in touch with Moore, and he told my father, ‘Send Junior on down here.’ So I got on the bus and came on down.”
In the fall of 1952, in Cy McClairen’s senior season, Bethune-Cookman beat its larger rival, Florida A&M, for the first time. The Wildcats won, 8-7, with the winning score coming on a 38-yard touchdown reception by McClairen, who caught the ball at the FAMU 18-yard line and worked his way to the end zone.
“’It seemed like every time someone hit me and I thought I was going to fall, somebody would hit me and lift me back up. All this ducking, diving and getting hit, ricocheting off and all this kind of stuff made it more spectacular.”
In those years, still relatively soon after WWII, Bethune-Cookman included a trade school, which included some military veterans, who were naturally recruited to also join the football and basketball teams.
“Some of those guys were learning how to lay bricks, and they were playing football too. Man, they were busting the (mess) out of us. They were grown men. We’d come together, resting, and they’re smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and they say, ‘You guys can’t do this here stuff. We were in the Army. We did this in the Army. Now, don’t go telling nobody, and don’t participate.”
Blacks, unless they worked on the beachside, were forced to stay on Daytona Beach’s mainland during McClairen’s college days. Since he’d grown up in Panama City, and frequently visited that town’s beach (in a segregated area), he wasn’t as intrigued as others by the lure of sand and sea.
“Yeah, you could go across there working. But just drift across there to wet your toes? No, you didn’t do that. But the beach didn’t impress me. I could go to the beach in Panama City. That wasn’t nothin’ for me.
“I heard guys talking about, ‘We’ll get a car and go over there, get us some bats and whup ’em.’ I’d say, ‘I’ll see y’all when you get back, if you all can get back.’ Some of the guys would say, ‘Well, you a southerner, you’re used to it.’ I’d say, ‘Well, you’re gonna be used to it for four years.’ ”
Jack McClairen Sr., like many southern blacks of the day, wanted for his son to eventually head north toward more and better opportunities.
“My mother died when I was 13 or 14. My daddy was a guide for hunting and fishing. He took whites from Panama City — lawyers, judges — he’d take them hunting and fishing. We’d go to Wewahitchka and go hunting and fishing. He’d say, “You want to make some money, make a living, you need to get an education and don’t do what I’m doing. Get to where you go north.’
“I’d say, ‘we got a regular house here, no sense in my going north. It gets cold up north.’ But the education part, I could see where that can help me.”
McClairen wasn’t just a star player on the basketball and football teams at Bethune-Cookman, but often drove the team bus, out of “necessity” when the assigned driver or coach, Rudolph “Bunky” Matthews, were unavailable.
“Our bus driver would get drunk. Bunky would also have a few drinks. We’re gonna leave at 7 in the morning the day after the game. Both of them would be looking funny.
“My uncle had five pulp-wood trucks when I was a kid. I used to drive one in the summertime. My daddy got me a driver’s license when I was 14 so I could drive them trucks.
“So the bus driver ain’t ready to drive, and Bunky ain’t ready. I’d tell them to let me drive for a while. They said, ‘You can’t drive.’ Oh yes I can, I have a license. We leave Columbia, South Carolina, eventually stop for gas. The bus driver would wash his face at the gas station and say, ‘I got it.’ He’d drive it on in.
“For the basketball team, I drove a station wagon.”
McClairen’s chauffeuring abilities also came in handy for the school’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, who was friends with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. According to News-Journal records, Mrs. Roosevelt visited Bethune in 1953.
“I drove Ms. Bethune across the river to the Princess Issena Hotel to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt. Ms. Bethune’s driver had taken President Moore off to a meeting. Eleanor Roosevelt called Ms. Bethune and said she was here. The business manager said, ‘Cy can drive. He drives the team bus.’
“She says, ‘You can drive without jerking the car around?’ She had a brand new Lincoln. I wanted to drive that damn Lincoln. I drove it over and at the hotel a guy said, ‘Cy, we don’t let colored come into the Princess Issena.’ Miss Bethune got out. The doorman stopped her. She put her cane on him and moved him out of the way. She told the clerk who she’d come for.
“Mrs. Roosevelt came down, they embraced like sisters. I opened the doors for them, they got in the car. I’d stayed outside with the car just in case some stuff happened. I could run back across the river if I had to. I didn’t know what kind of clout she had, but I wasn’t gonna drive back across the river and leave her without the car. I was gonna run back.”
McClairen spent two years in the U.S. Army after leaving Bethune-Cookman in 1953. He was stationed at Fort Still, Oklahoma, where he played football and basketball on the post’s team for two years. Fort Sill’s ’54 football team, featuring McClairen and several other former college players, won the All Service Championship with a 12-0 record, outscoring opponents 445-77.
“The colonel at the post loved sports. I stayed there the whole time. Didn’t shoot a gun. Didn’t dig no holes. Just played football and basketball. When we weren’t playing, we were sitting there shooting pool. Wasn’t anything to do in Oklahoma for a black dude.”
In his third and fourth seasons with the Steelers, McClairen had a combined 75 receptions. But his last two years (1959-60) were largely spent hobbling on injured knees. Before the ’61 season, he knew it was time to move along.
“The Steelers coach told me if I don’t make the team, he’d try to trade me to another team. I said, ‘Send me somewhere? I have a degree, I’ll go get a job.’ The coach said, ‘You have a degree? Most of the guys we coach don’t have degrees.’
“I told him, ‘I’m sorry to hear that, but I have a degree. With both my knees gone, y’all are gonna get sick of me hopping around and not playing. I’m sick of it myself.’ I’d go to practice and couldn’t run, so me and the ball boy would stand around and play catch. I said hell, this ain’t gonna work.”
McClairen’s decision to quit football and hopefully turn to coaching came at an opportune time. Longtime coach Bunky Matthews had suffered a heart attack and was told he’d have to quit coaching.
“So I called President Moore at Bethune. Got Moore squared away. Then called Bunky and told him I’m coming in to take the football team. He said he’d give me a little help, but it won’t be on the field.”
In the later years of McClairen’s tenure as basketball coach, his teams would open the season with several “money” games against big Division I opponents. These games provided easy early-season fodder for the big schools, and a decent payday for B-CU.
“Yeah, they’d beat you badly. Ohio state, Maryland, Minnesota. I played them to save the program. The business manager said we aren’t making enough money selling tickets to our games and said we’ll probably have to cut back and quit giving out 10 scholarships. I told him, ‘I can make you some money in basketball if y’all keep the wolves off of me.’
“I could play the major universities and get about $80,000, $115,000. They’re paying up to $20,000 a game. They didn’t want you to get there, start getting whipped and take your team off the floor. I said, I can do that and keep both teams working, men and women.
“I got tired of that. I’d start off the season, I’m 0-9, 0-10, 0-11 … and the alumni saying, ‘Man, gotta fire Cy. He done got old.’ I got sick of hearing that (B.S.).”
In 1994, B-CU needed a football coach to replace Sylvester Collins, who’d been fired following the 1993 season in the wake of criminal proceedings. During staff discussions, Lynn Thompson eventually turned to McClairen, who was preparing to retire from his basketball duties.
“We were discussing getting a coach to take the team. Lynn said, ‘Hell, we ain’t got no business finding somebody to take the team. Cy will take it.’ I looked up and said, ‘I’m retired from coaching football.’ They pushed it in my lap.
“We were sitting in a meeting. They made a joke out of it. Then by the time the meeting is finished, it’s etched in stone. They say, ‘Cy, you’ll take it for a year or so until we can find somebody.’ I said OK, and I coached three more years.”
Today, the man who did a lot of driving for Bethune-Cookman, both literally and figuratively, no longer drives himself wherever he needs to go. His daughter Robin handles that for him. The man with 12 varsity letters from college, who was an NFL All-Pro in 1957, deals with vertigo and walks with a cane.
“I asked the doctor, ‘How in the hell? I could do a flip. Could put one hand down and do a pushup. Grab hold of a (tree) limb with one arm, swing to another limb. All that kind of stuff.’ The doc looked at me and said, ‘I don’t give a (bleep) what you USED to do.’
“I just take what the cards dealt me.”
CY McCLAIREN TIMELINE
1947: As a high school student from Panama City’s Rosenwald High, attends Florida A&M vs. Bethune-Cookman football game in Tallahassee.
1949: Enrolls at Bethune-Cookman College.
1952: Scores game-winning touchdown for B-CC’s first-ever win over FAMU.
1953: Leads B-CC’s basketball team to conference championship and is named conference “player of the year.” Graduates from B-CC and enters the U.S. Army. Drafted in 26th round of NFL draft by Pittsburgh Steelers.
1955: Leaves U.S. Army, joins Pittsburgh Steelers.
1957: Named to NFL All-Pro team after finishing third in the league with 46 receptions. The Steelers’ starting QB was Earl Morrall, with Len Dawson and Jack Kemp serving as backups.
1961: Returns to B-CC to become the football and basketball coach, as well as director of athletics.
1972: Resigns as AD and football coach, remains basketball coach.
1980: In final season of Division II play, leads basketball team to conference tournament championship and berth in NCAA D-II tournament for second time.
1988: Inducted into Florida Sports Hall of Fame.
1993: Resigns as basketball coach.
1994: Returns to sideline as head football coach at age 63. Coaches three seasons.
2000: Inducted into inaugural class of Bethune-Cookman Athletic Hall of Fame.
2016: Officially retires Thursday. The school has planned an Aug. 12-13 reunion for all of McClairen’s former players, with event details to be announced at a later date.
THIS AND THAT . . .
- Won 391 games in 31 seasons as Bethune-Cookman basketball coach, 71 games in 15 seasons as football coach.
- Defeated rival Florida A&M as both player and coach in both football and basketball.
- Conference Coach of the Year in both football and basketball. Also conference Player of Year in basketball.
- Coached conference championship teams in football, basketball and track.
- Two of his former 1960s-era football players, Larry Little and Maulty Moore, were members of the perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins.
- Hall of Fame QB Johnny Unitas was a fellow rookie with the ’55 Steelers, but was cut during preseason.